Photo © Renaud Camus
Photo © Renaud Camus
Photo © Renaud Camus
Photo © Renaud Camus
Photo © Renaud Camus
Photo © Renaud Camus
Photo © Renaud Camus
Photo © Renaud Camus
Photo © Renaud Camus
Photo © Renaud Camus
Photo © Renaud Camus
Photo © Renaud Camus
Photo © Renaud Camus
Photo © Renaud Camus
Photo © Renaud Camus
Photo © Renaud Camus
Photo © Renaud Camus
Photo © Renaud Camus
Photo © Renaud Camus
Photo © Renaud Camus

Documents

Paru dans Yale French Studies
Date 1988
Titre Renaud Camus
Auteurs Dominique Jullien et Pierre Force
Cet article, en anglais, est extrait du numéro spécial de la revue Yale French Studies intitulé After the Age of Suspicion: The French Novel Today, publiée en 1988.

Renaud Camus

Renaud Camus was born in 1946 in Chamalières, near Clermont-Ferrand. He studied law, political science, and philosophy. He spent a year at Oxford and lived in the USA as a lecturer in two universities, in New York (CUNY) and in the South (Hendricks College). He recently spent two years in Italy, as a fellow of the French Academy in Rome (Villa Medici). Renaud Camus lives in Paris, rue du Bac. Unlike most young writers, he has chosen to make his living by his writings.
Renaud Camus is not famous yet, although his last two novels (Roman Roi, 1985, Roman Furieux, 1987} have begun to attract a wider audience. Very little criticism is available on him. Roland Barthes wrote a preface to Tricks; Gérard Genette mentions him several times in his latest book, Seuils (1987), as an exalple for his use of -pseudonyms, footnotes, and other aspects of the literary “liminaire”.
Roman roi was the first of Renaud Camus's novels to receive wide critical attention. While the French press unanimously agreed in proclaiming the remarkable originality of Camus's work, most critics attempted to constitute Iists of authors to whom Renaud Camus owed something. [1] A comparison between those lists shows they have very few names in common: if we merge them, we corne to a total of at least three dozen names. This total list, however, seems short if we compare it to the one provided by Camus himself in a previous work, Été, where sixty-four titles of films, cartoons, novels, criticism, and other sorts of written material are listed. As far as Été is concerned, speaking of literary influence would be a misunderstanding. The main writing technique of Été is plagiarism: we read on page 383: “Here is the most original novel ever published: its author hasn't written a single line of it.” In the postface of Passage, Renaud Camus's first novel, thirty-four authors arc given credit for a quarter of the book, the rest consisting of “passages taken from the author's previous writings”. [2]
It is fairly easy to give a critical account of Camus's work, since most of the information necessary for such a purpose is already contained in the work itself. In that respect, a key to Camus's idea of literature carn be found in the now canonical chapter 21 of Barthes's S/Z (Irony, parody); although this particular chapter is not mentioned, one other chapter to which it is intimately related (chapter 59 on Flaubert's irony) is quoted in Été. In chapter 21, Roland Barthes, stating that irony acknowledges the arien of quoted sentences, defines modem writing as an attempt to go one step beyond ironical discourse. On the contrary, “Écriture refuses all claims to property and, therefore, can never be ironical.” According to Barthes, the quick obsolescence of literary forms leads literature to parody; forms are reused in an ironical manner. Previous authors are quoted ironically. Since nothing new can be invented, the modern text cannot avoid being a sequence of quotations from existing literature. The task left to the modern writer is “to abolish quotation marks.” This is exactly what Renaud Camus does in a work like Été.
Not all of Camus’s works, however, belong to the category of polyphonic writing. Several essays and chronicles combine autobiographical elements with reflections on the interpretation of signs in everyday life. The Journal d'un voyage en France (1981), following the tradition of nineteenth-century travel diaries, offers critical additions to the Guide bleu, detailed descriptions of provincial cities, meticulous accounts of the author's sexual encounters, health problems, financial difficulties, a comparative study of the quality of service in French hotels, and numerous digressions of all kinds. Tricks (1979), Notes achriennes (1982) and Chroniques achriennes (1984) deal with homosexuality from the point of view of an author who believes that homosexuality should be a topic of no more and no less interest than any other topic related to human behavior. Camus writes in his foreword to Tricks, “if this books helps to make its subject banal as subject, it will not have been written in vain.” In so saying, Camus renews the classical doctrine according to which literature has both the power and the duty to influence moral behavior. [3] This moral purpose is also clear in Notes sur les manières du temps (1985), which deals with manners in everyday life. Through a subtle analysis of real-life situations, Camus tries to overturn the widespread Rousseauist ideology which values sincerity and spontaneity in social behavior. His praise of rules and conventions is based on the assumption that civilization is a set of arbitrary rules which must be accepted as such. In a social context, spontaneous behavior means a diminished civilization and more brutality. Therefore, convention has a higher moral value.
Such statements could easily be translated into the vocabulary of Pascal's Pensées. In Buena Vista Park (1980), Camus quotes Pascal's thought an the hierarchy of opinions in society, which ranges from the opinion of the “populace” to that of the “clever”, with an intermediate step, the “half-clever”. [4] This clearly shows that Camus's praise of convention, although very difficult to distinguish from traditional, conservative discourse, is to be understood as a step beyond the questioning of convention, that is to say, in Camus's vocabulary, a third-degree position. Camus makes a universal use of bathmology (Barthes's neologism for the science of degrees in speech). Bathmology is a key to ail of Camus's productions: its applications range from considerations on manners to statements on literature itself.
Novelists born after 1968 must be divided into two families. Those who continue tp repeat their lessons in Freudolinguistics and wonder about the birth of the text in the depth of their ego. And those who more modestly accept the use of the inherited language to tell intelligible stories, which is far more difficult. [5]
This statement on contemporary French literature could be a quotation from the literary supplement of Le Figaro. However, what is relevant is not its origin but its bathmological status. If we consider it as a third-degree opinion, it explains why Camus moved away from polyphonic writing in Roman roi (1983) and Roman furieux (1987), which belong unambiguously to the novelistic genre. Indeed, his allegiance to genre leads him to reactivate the conventional stance “this is not fiction” which characterizes eighteenth-century novels. In a television presentation of Roman roi, Renaud Camus boldly asserted that Roman roi was the true story of Roman, king of Caronia, born in 1920 and dethroned by the Communists in 1948. [6] From this perspective, one is tempted to retrace Camus's career as a progression from criticism to fiction, in a French literary tradition which considers that, after Bouvard et Pécuchet, writing has become impossible. [7]
It seems, however, that such an itinerary (from sterile criticism to creation) has little to do with Camus's personal history as a writer. Camus, who published twelve books in twelve years, never felt the anxiety of the blank page. On the contrary, what strikes us is a remarkable fecundity and an obvious pleasure in writing. This is the reason why works like Été do not seem to be an experimental step toward a more conventional form of fiction. One should first take into account that some passages of Été contain characters and situations that are later developed in Roman roi and Roman furieux. Secondly, Été is a part of “Les Églogues, a trilogy in four books and seven volumes”, of which three volumes are still to come. Therefore, Camus's novelistic cycle could just as well be considered a by-product of this more ambitious project, which will end with an appendix entitled Lecture (comment m'ont écrit certains de mes livres). [8]
Camus is not likely to abandon polyphonic writing because, even though he knows what must come after them, works like Été and the Églogues in general are still facing indifference and misunderstanding. As one would say in bathmological terms, a vast majority of readers are still used to first-degree novels (traditionnal nineteenth-century writing, perpetuated by most of today's authors), while polyphonic writing and the Nouveau Roman are popular among academics (second degree) and have become cliché in avant-garde circles. Therefore, according to Renaud Camus, statements like the following should be strongly supported:
Literature is running late: painters are, fortunately, seldom asked what their paintings represent, but when it comes to writers, the majority of the public still wants to know what the subject of their novels is and what it is about [9]. The idea that the subject of a work should be only itself, its composition, the arrangement of its elements is now more or less admitted by the doxa when it comes from artists, but it is rejected if one talks about novelists. [10]
This throws light on the titles Camus gave to his polyphonic writings: Passage, Échange, Travers, Été (Travers II) and those to come, (Travers III, Travers Coda & Index, Lecture). More than information about the contents of the books, these titles refer to a certain kind of writing. Therefore, they could well be interchangeable. Passage, Échange, Travers, refer to relations between meanings, not to meanings themselves. Of course, these relations become meaningful in their turn; if Camus actually wrote a text entirely made of quotations, he could reject the accusation of plagiarism by quoting Pascal: “Do not tell me I have said nothing new: the arrangement of the matter is new.” [11]
In his polyphonic writings, Camus gathers sentences that are powerless, banal or cliché in thcir original context, because of the obsolescence of literary forms. As they become a part of Camus's text, these meanings play and interact in many unexpected ways. They come back to life. The reader is swiftly carried from one voice to another, from one style to its parody, from one time to another, from criticism to fiction, and vice versa. Of course, in these wanderings, the crossings of borders are so complex that the reader never exactly knows where he is. In Été, Camus uses up to twelve levels of footnotes, making the distinction between note and main text irrelevant. This technique and others of the same kind lead to what we can only call a Balkanisation of writing.
In fact, saying that these heterogeneous fragments of meanings are gathered to become Camus's text is already saying too much. Modern writing, says Barthes, abolishes the notion of literary property. Camus, in a move that reminds us of some very ancient conceptions of literature, tends to abolish the notion of author. Camus's use of pseudonyms does not aim at hiding a personality or a private life. The opposition usually made between literary confession and impersonal literature is irrelevant in his case. There is not even a clear distinction between Camus's own name and the various pseudonyms he uses. These form a continuum that goes from slight alterations of the author's officially registered name (Renaud Camus) to names which are totally different (Jean-Renaud Camus, J.R.G. Le Camus, Renaud Camus & Tony Duparc, Jean-Renaud Camus et Tony Duvert, Denise du Parc, etc.). Not included in this list arc those pseudonyms to be found in the text itself: anagrams, such as Duane Markus.
The meaning of all these games is clear. Renaud Camus (the author), in the way Borges once wrote a story called Borges and I, is a character, if not several characters, in his own books. Therefore, it is not surprising to find sentences like this one in Été: “Ronald, Duane, Renaud, and I took a taxi with Markus to go to his house.” [12]
It may seem paradoxical to assert that, in total, Camus's ultimate goal is simplicity. But as Barthes says, “speaking simply belongs to a higher art, writing” [13]. One may also be surprised by Barthes's assessment of Camus's writing:
Ourperiod interprets a great deal, but Renaud Camus's narratives are neutral, they do not participate in the game of interpretation. They are surfaces without shadows, without ulterior motives. [14]
Obviously, there is a great deal of interpretation in Camus's writing. The Voyage en France and Notes sur les manières du temps arc entirely hermeneutic. Buena Vista Park is a treatise on interpretation. But those works may not be interpreted in the usual way because they are based on a virtue which belongs both to ethics and hermeneutics: good will. Common interpretation is forever in search of hidden motives and intentions. Its favorite tool and highest value is suspicion [15]. Renaud Camus, on the contrary, one step beyond sarcastic distance, considers meaning with kindness. The way he reports the sometimes naive words of his sexual partners, and the way he quotes texts of various origins, show the same absence of irony. What common interpretation would consider ridiculous, pedantic, naive, impossible to say, boring, too difficult to understand, or passé finds its place in Camus's writing.
Camus's slogan on interpretation could be: less is more. Meaning dissolves itself in commentary. Therefore, Camus chose silent ways of interpretation. Rearranging old material is already all the interpretation we need. It is also all we need to produce new meaning.

Bibliography

Églogues (Unfinished trilogy in four books and seven volumes):

  • Passage, by Renaud Camus (Paris: Flammarion, 1975).
  • Échange, by Denis Duparc (Paris: Flammarion, 1976).
  • Travers, by Renaud Camus & Tony Duparc (Paris: Hachette, 1978).
  • Été (Travers II), by Jean-Renaud Camus & Denis Duvert (Paris: Hachette, 1982).

Novels


Notes

[1] Here are a few examples: Abel Hermant, Jean d'Ormesson, Maurice Donnay, Alphonse Daudet, Musil (Le Figaro); Arsène Lupin rewriting Les Mémoires d'outre-tombe (Quinzaine littéraire); Albert Camus's La Chute (Gai-pied hebdo); Stendhal, Jules Verne. Michelet, Roussel, Walter Scott, Hergé's Le Sceptre d'Ottokar (Le Nouvel observateur). The same magazine characterizes the novel as U.L.O, Unidentified Literary Object.
[2] Passage (Paris: Flammarion, 1975), 207.
[3] The forging of the word achrien, an arbitrary, and therefore unconnotated neologism for homosexual, is based on this assumption.
[4] Buena Vista Park (Paris: Hachette, 1980), 56.
[5] Été (Paris: Hachette, 1982), 233.
[6] The book itself provides us with a map of Caronia and a genealogical tree of the royal family. A publisher's note on the back cover insists that the story is true.
[7] This does not mean that people will stop writing novels, any more than Hegel meant, when he said art was a thing of the past, that there would be no more works of art.
[8] A parodic reference to Raymond Rousscl's famous Comment j'ai écrit certains de mes livres.
[9] In English in the original.
[10] Été, 113. Camus immediately gives the antithesis of this statement in a footnote: “Of course; this because language is, by nature, and intrinsically, representative. On the other hand, a literature that would give up speaking of the world and would refer only to itself, would, in that meaningless specularity, encounter only derision and death.”
[11] Quoted in Été, 231.
[12] Été, 307.
[13] Preface to Tricks, trans. Richard Howard (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981), vii.
[14] Op. cit., viii.
[15] A literary expression of this attitude would be Nathalie Sarraute's L'Ère du soupçon.
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